Sorry for Your Loss, a drama from playwright Kit Steinkellner that’s now in its second season on Facebook Watch, is a difficult sell: Open your Facebook account, then use it to watch Elizabeth Olsen play a young woman whose husband died horribly, and follow her as she slowly grieves him over the course of several seasons. As a staunch fan of the entire Olsen family — and a person who inherently trusts Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz, who’s been one of the loudest voices rallying for the series since its inception — I had Sorry for Your Loss open in a tab for months, but couldn’t bring myself to press play. Earlier this month, I finally did, and ended up bingeing the entire thing in a few hours. (I don’t recommend doing this unless you have an extremely hearty constitution.) I laughed, I cried dangerously onto my laptop keyboard, and I developed a profound obsession with Janet McTeer, who plays Olsen’s delightfully woo-woo single mother, Amy, the sort of woman who sends her kids to psychics and offers her daughter psychedelics during a particularly dark bout of depression.
As the show’s central character, Olsen is consistently wonderful, displaying an impressive emotional range she’s been hiding behind Wanda Maximoff’s red pleather, but the second season in particular gives McTeer a chance to show off those storied thespian skills she’s quietly refined for decades. The third episode — entitled “What’s Wrong With Your Chest?” — is almost entirely centered on McTeer’s Amy: Ruffled by a pre-Christmas family therapy session in which the psychologist suggests she’s overly involved in her daughters’ lives, she stays awake for 24 hours, rifling through old boxes and her own memory. She shows up at the family’s Christmas dinner all raw nerves and trip wires, and soon, she’s splintering apart in a long, searing monologue that sees her veering between grief, anger, regret, horror, and sadness. It’s a nuanced, devastating performance. McTeer sinks her teeth in so hard that she hits bone.
At the end of the episode, Amy announces to her daughters that she’s going to Alaska for an unspecified amount of time; she doesn’t appear at all in the episodes released since. I was desperate to talk to McTeer about all of it, so she called me from her house in Maine, where, she explained, she’d just arrived after filming Ozark in Atlanta. “I’m a little tired and I have a very small brain,” she laughed. “But I’m still here.”
Talk to me about first getting involved in Sorry for Your Loss. I know you were really busy when they came to you with the project. What made you sign on?
Speaking with Kit. It’s her child, as it were. I really liked her. I really liked everyone behind the project. I really liked Lizzie [Olsen] as an actress. I liked the subject matter. People shy away from that because they’re afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, or think they’re gonna mess up somehow. It’s a program about how messy it all is, how difficult it all is, how long it all takes, the ramifications both good and bad on a family. It’s a really important story. You don’t get to be my age without witnessing grief, sadly. So I felt that lots of people would be able to relate to it. I felt like it would help people.
This season specifically, your character gets a lot more time and a lot more care. When did you realize that’d be the case?
I felt very strongly, and so did Kit, that [we needed to represent] the stages of grief, as it were. There’s the immediate emergency stage, when everyone is still reeling and in shock. But when you get beyond that, it’s “How do you go on with your life?” Kit really wanted to explore what happens when you become a caretaker again, when you thought your caretaking days were more or less over. You’re an empty nester, but when something like this happens, you become a carer again. That was a wonderful thing to be able to explore. There’s a lot of women involved in the series, and that’s been a powerful thing. It’s very female-driven and female-led, and everyone is very nurturing and empowering.
The episode in question hinges on the idea that, in trying to compensate for her own mother’s mistakes as a parent, Amy overcorrects and gets too involved in her daughters’ lives. Do you think she’s a good mom?
I think all parents do that. Everyone thinks, Oh, my dad did this, therefore I’m going to do this. It’s human nature to try and correct what we see as the mistakes of our parents. As you go along, you realize, They were just doing their best; we’re just doing our best. We all mess up. It’s impossible to be a perfect parent. The only thing that you can ask of any parent, ever, is — given the knowledge that they have, given the resources that they have — did they do the very best they could? If the answer is yes, they’re a really good parent.
Amy brought her kids up by herself. Of the many single women I know who’ve brought up their children by themselves, there’s almost always a slight control-freak factor. They have to do it all themselves; they have no choice. Because they don’t have anybody taking half the brunt, it’s a huge amount of work for a single parent. It’s par for the course to be a control freak. Do I think she’s a great mother? Absolutely. What else can you ask for? She’s the most loving and caring that she could possibly be. Does she get it wrong? Of course she does. We all do. But we’re only human.
To me, she reads as a great mom. I was surprised by what the therapist said. I also love that she gives her daughter DMT and encourages her to trip as a way to deal with her grief.
[Laughs loudly.] Good for her!
Would you do that as a parent?
Amy’s a bit out there. I think in the real world, these psychedelic meds were created for psychiatric purposes and became a popular drug later. She obviously buys into that and believes it can really help. [Laughs.] Good for her. I’m not sure I’d do the same thing, but …
Do you feel a maternal connection to Elizabeth Olsen and Kelly Marie-Tran? Do they come to you for advice?
I feel very connected to them. I love them as women. They’re delightful and funny, and they have their hearts and heads in the right place. I’m very, very fond of them both. It’s more like friends than [maternal advice], but I have been around the block a few times. [Laughs.]
Let’s talk about the monologue. What did you think when you first saw it on the page?
I knew where the character was going and what was going to happen. I worked on it for ages, thought about it a lot, and took what I felt was great about the speech and what was missing and brought it to [the writers]. They were brilliant. They listened.
What did you want to add?
It wasn’t that it was specifically missing, but you feel like it’s your character. There were little things. I am a woman in my 50s, so I thought there was a certain ways of saying things that were very different from somebody who was writing it. We didn’t change that much.
What sort of preparation did you do?
I worked on the speech for three weeks. I thought about every word and sentence. I put myself in situations where I could imagine feeling like that — how resentful you’d feel. And breaking it down point by point, so it wasn’t just generalized emotion, but specific thoughts. I worked on it every day.
What was the most difficult part for you?
The hardest thing about it, honestly, is you have to do it so many times. It’s about maximizing it, keeping the energy and focus for such a long time.
You’ve said in interviews before that you’re very sensitive. How do you shake off those heavy emotions?
I don’t know that I shake it off. I just try as best as I can to give justice to that kind of heartbreak, how hard it is to be a single mom, try and be everything to everyone, and then losing yourself. You just don’t recognize yourself anymore. You’ve got lost. That happens to so many people. I can’t speak for men because I’m not a guy, but I can speak for women. I want to do as much justice and work as hard as I can on the agony and the trauma of being a woman in that situation: messing up the way she’s messed up, realizing she’s messed up, and trying to sort it out.
What was the mood in the room like while you filmed it? Was it heavy or were you trying to lighten it up for each other?
Everyone was really … it was too hard. That’s one of those times where everyone knuckles down. Every time we finished a take, I’d put my music on and I’d slip off to one side to stay in the zone. All the other actors were amazing. Everyone was very appreciative of how hard of a thing it is to do, so they were quiet and focused until we were done. You can’t eat when you film scenes like that — you just can’t — so after the scene was done I had a very large ice cream. [Laughs.]
How often are you thinking about your own experiences with grief, your own losses, while filming scenes like these?
Not at all, really. Once you’re actually doing the character, you shouldn’t be thinking about those things at all. When you’ve been prepping, you’re thinking about those things for yourself and you’re drawing on that. But by the time you’re performing, you’re drawing on your character’s memories. When I was talking about the times when the kids got into bed with me, I was speaking about Elizabeth and Kelly. I wasn’t thinking about myself.
The show hasn’t really grappled with this concept, outside of the DMT scene, but I’m curious what you think happens after we die.
Hmm, I do not know. I really don’t know. And I’m happy not to know.